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The Santa Card

I have to admit, sometimes it all gets to be too much. There are days when my kids just drive me to my wits end. Lately, I’ve been feeling like this most of the time. Since my son was born four years ago, I’ve noticed that we just drift in and out of good and bad phases. We are currently going through one of the bad ones.

It almost feels like we are always fighting and bickering and arguing about something. And it’s as if my son is purposely defying me, just to test my limits. Our days are filled with conversations such as these: “Luca watch out or you’ll fall” to which he will reply: “No! I won’t fall!” or “Wait for that to cool down before you eat it, it’s still hot” which will lead to a: “No! It’s not hot!” Sometimes it’s as ridiculous as this one: “Mom, where’s daddy” “He’s with the baby” to which he will shout: “No! He’s not with the baby!”

For the first time since I became a mother, I feel like I am at a loss as to what to do. And when day after day you find yourself filled with tension and negative energy, leading you to take it out on the kids, you know you have to do something. But what? When you try talking, and reasoning, and different adaptations of the “naughty corner” and you still can’t seem to get through to them, what on earth do you do?

Countless times, in my desperation, I have resorted to using methods which might be controversial. And I know some people secretly, or not so secretly judge me for it, but sometimes the importance of reaching the results you want will outweigh the cons of your methods. That’s the way I see it anyway. For instance, there was a time when my son refused to eat anything but pasta and pizza. I mean it, nothing at all. If I did manage to get him to open his mouth, he would either gag or throw up. I could never get him to eat fruits, vegetables, meats, or anything healthy really! One thing he loves dearly is the iPad. He loves it so much he is willing to do just about anything for it. So I used it to get the job done. I would cook something healthy that he would normally refuse to eat, and then offer him the iPad. I would then give him a spoonful of food, and if he refused to try it, I would ask him to give me the iPad back. Is this ideal? No, absolutely not! I despise having him stare into that screen while we’re having lunch. But because of it, Luca will now eat healthy food every day, and most of the time I don’t even have to use the iPad anymore. So really, after having endlessly questioned my method, I am not ashamed of what I did.

In the same way, I have seen my son’s teacher use less than ideal incentives to establish positive behavior, and get her class to do the things they need to do, and don’t necessarily want to. One thing that has helped Luca with helping to pick up his mess is the “special treat box” they use in class. After they’re done playing, the teacher will ask the whole class to help and clean up, after which they would get a special treat from the special treat box. Before I found out about this, Luca walked out of the class one day and came to me crying and trying to explain to me what had happened. After failing to understand, the teacher came to me and explained that Luca had refused to pick up the mess with his classmates, so he didn’t get a special treat like the rest of them. Although it was heartbreaking to see him like this, and my first instinct was to rush to the supermarket and buy him the treat he wanted, I thought it was ingenious really! I wasn’t crazy about the whole treat thing, but in order for things like this to work, I really believe in choosing the right incentive. I must have spent the rest of that day talking to Luca about helping others when they ask for it, and picking up his mess when he’s done playing. He got no treats from me that day either. A couple of weeks later, after numerous “treat box” incidents, my husband was picking up the baby’s toys while I put him to bed, and Luca lunged himself onto the floor to help his dad put the toys back in the toy box. My husband hadn’t asked him for help, and Luca didn’t ask for a treat when he was done. It had worked! A positive behavior was established and there was no longer a need for the so called “undesirable” incentive.

And now I find myself in a rut, unable to reason with my child. Day after day I have to deal with constant whining about everything. And with Christmas around the corner, I couldn’t resist the urge to use – the Santa card. I never wanted to do it, but I just felt like at this point, I had no other choice. And what could make for a better incentive than good old Father Christmas, a jolly old man who will bring you lots of toys, the condition of course being that you have to be good. So basically now, every time my regular methods fail, I throw my Santa card at him, by either reminding him that Santa is watching to make sure he was behaving, that he won’t be visiting our house if he’s not, or by breaking out into song, my song always being “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, of course. And it’s amazing how I never really saw this song as threatening until now, which makes me feel bad every single time I bring it up. Santa is watching you, he’s making a list, he knows if you’re awake. You’d better be good or he’s not coming. Ouch.

So when I started doing this, I figured I had a few good weeks before Christmas to establish positive behavior and then bid Santa farewell. Mind you, I only use my card when I really have to, like when the whining just won’t stop, when the defiance is ridiculous, and when he is being mean to his baby brother for no good reason. And so far, it seems to do the trick, but up until now the results have been very short lived. I have to constantly remind him that Christmas is coming, and of the toys he desperately wants, and that it would make Santa very happy if he behaved. After a couple of weeks of playing this card, Luca has been behaving more often than he was before, and he never fails to remind me that this is the result of the incentive I’d chosen. If he hands a toy to his brother and I start hugging him and telling him how sweet he is, he’ll say: “And now Santa is very happy!” When he said that to me the first time, I told him that by behaving he is also making me very happy! And every time he did something good, I insisted that not only is Santa happy, but that I am as well, this of course being followed by all kinds of positive reinforcement.

I don’t know if this is right or wrong. I often feel like it’s incredibly wrong to use the kinds of incentives that can also be perceived as threats. But then again, don’t they all work that way? Don’t we work hardest when there is an incentive at the end? And isn’t that because the failure to get this incentive is actually threatening to us? Whether it’s candy for a child, a bonus for a sales person, or a doggy treat for our pets, we strive to do what we normally wouldn’t because not getting that incentive would hurt.

The other night, after a long, awful day, as I tucked Luca in for a bedtime story, I sat up and pointed out that his behavior was really upsetting me. I told him that it had gone on too long, and that he should talk to me if something was bothering him. I went on about how tired I was and how I knew he could be better. I left Santa out of this one. This was about me. He looked up at me, put his hands on my cheeks and said: “Mommy, I want to make you happy.” Then he gave me a kiss and said: “Can you smile mommy?” Of course I had to fight back my tears I was so deeply moved. But it also made me very happy that when it came down to it, when things got serious, the real incentive was to make mommy happy, and Santa had nothing to do with that.

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